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Brave new world
I experience the impact of technology on a daily basis - literally, when someone walks into me while they are texting without looking where they are going. We all use mechanized transport and buy lunch without money (cash is increasingly anachronistic). At work, we send e-mails to people who are across the world and ten feet away. For the most part, if and when we stop to think, we generally rejoice in the many benefits of this brave new world.
It is easy for an old guy to be cynical, but even old guys know that our lives are so much easier these days while we remain aware of some negative consequences. The automobile bestows freedom of mobility in ways that would have been undreamed of in the lives of our ancestors even if, simultaneously, it poisons the air our children breathe. Public and private transport has widened the urban environment and created the possibility of suburban life, as well as making many places accessible for pleasure and profit. Air travel has redefined distance and reduced notions of space. Mobile telephones enable us to communicate at any time and in any place whether or not we have anything to say.
We can all offer examples of the ways in which our lives have been transformed and can speculate as to what the uncertain future may bring – utopia or apocalypse, or, most likely, something somewhere in between.
Discussions of technology are almost by definition aligned with future thought. The seemingly inexorable development of devices that speed up communication does not easily lead towards introspection. The momentum is towards constant renewal. We have an accelerated adjustment to technological advances. Few of us can easily recall how we managed before internet, e-mails, texting, and all the hideous social media constructs (about which I know little and care less). However, it is easy to forget that our average student (20-years-old or so) was born into a world in which e-mail was an arcane mechanism through which specialists exchanged information on topics that mattered, rather than the mass form of communication (and torment) we endure today. In my career in international education, I have seen the transition from telex to fax to e-mail (as soon as I painfully learn one thing, another thing happened).
We have imagined that these technologies have always been with us because they are so embedded into our professional and personal lives. In fact, the worldwide web was launched in 1991. In 1992, there were an estimated number of 26 operational sites. Amazon was founded in in 1994 when Bill Clinton was President of the US and John Major Prime Minister of the UK. This is very, very recent history.
Certainly, these innovations have democratized access to information (while undermining the credibility of that information). Expansion of knowledge does not, however, inevitably bring greater wisdom. The worldwide web offers space in which everyone can publish their unmediated thoughts and can become a film maker with access to a widely-viewed network through YouTube. Few mechanisms restrict these forms of communication; quality or commercial viability does not limit publication or distribution.
We have also redefined community and detached that notion from geographical proximity. We now create alliances and associations independent of the limitations of space. We can all expand our circles of connections (even if we have never met these “friends”) and join any number of virtual communities based on criteria other than personal contact or location.
There are other innovations that have transformed urban life in ways that we now tend to take for granted: by way of example, improvements in street lighting and the invention of the elevator are critical in the history of cities, and crucial to understanding the environments in which we study and teach.
Let there be light
The lighting of cities has always been a challenge to mobility, security and the quality of leisure (among many other aspects of life). The literature of the nineteenth century described urban landscapes in which shadows dominate small pockets of light thrown by gas lamps. The poet James Thompson in City of Dreadful Night (1874) precisely characterized London in that fashion:
The street lamps burn amid the baleful glooms,
Amidst the soundless solitudes of ranged mansions dark and still as tombs.
For Charles Dickens, the night was not a time of recreation but a place in which darkness and shadows conceal menace; it is populated by figures from an underworld, such as the evil Bill Sykes: "a man who slunk along in the deepest shadow he could find" Oliver Twist (1838). The condition of life in London was shaped by this darkness: "After nine, none could walk the streets without danger of their lives" The Pickwick Papers (1837).
The construction of the night as a place of unease and violence finds full expression in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). The wholesome Dr Jekyll becomes transformed into the demonic Mr Hyde: “when the night was full come, he set forth in the corner of closed cab…That child of Hell had nothing human.” This was not simply a matter of fictional imagination; it was echoed in the Whitechapel murders (1888 to 1891) when Jack the Ripper, hidden and protected by darkness, became the most infamous serial killer in history.
In the urban space of the nineteenth century, the night is a challenge to notions of a rational world and moral order. It is a metaphor for the darkness within the souls of men.
Late in the nineteenth century gas lighting began to give way to early forms of electric street light and the transformation of urban life began. The norm in the nineteenth century was that the “baleful gloom” of night was alleviated only by dim circles of illumination. Electric incandescent light inverted that norm and progressively eroded the distinction between day and night: shadows were banished. Our cities of night are now far from Thompson’s gloomy vision. These are places of pleasure and recreation. Street lighting created the necessary precondition for a fundamental redefinition of urban mobility, life, and leisure.
Going up in the world
The invention of the reliable and safe elevator created another profound transformation in the architecture and shape of cities. Andreas Bernard described Elisha Graves Otis’s demonstration of his invention of1854 as “the primal scene in the history of the elevator.” In Lifted: A Cultural History of the Elevator (New York, 2014) she outlines the way in which that technological innovation transformed the urban landscape. The elevator enabled cities to grow upwards and, thus, liberated expansion from the tyranny of land; urban developers could raise their eyes from earth and look towards the sky. The implications were profound. From the majestic Empire State Building to the hideous Shard in London, height became a matter of perceived prestige. The competition to build the highest building in the world is an expression of aspiration: an assertion of global urban status.
The elevator also permitted new perspectives on population density. More people could live and work in a vertical world. The creation and expansion of urban villages was no longer dependent on traditional measures of capacity. Concrete structures aligned with dreams: the skyscraper became a metaphor for human aspiration. Progress in the nineteenth century was symbolized by the development of railways, celebrated by majestic stations, secular cathedrals, such as Grand Central in New York and Union Station in Washington. In the twentieth century, the skyscraper became an iconic representation of optimistic modernity.
The elevator was a necessary precondition for the growth of what we think of as global cities. Buildings outgrew human scale and represented a victory over limitations of space. The function of skyscrapers, as centers of business, also embedded icons of capitalism into the fabric of urban life. An upwards thrust into space represented a secular faith rooted in capital and commerce.
Furthermore, the elevator reversed the class structure of domestic life. The development of the penthouse as the most desirable location in vertical urban living was dependent on the ability to access the upper floors safely, quickly, and reliably. To live closer to the sky became a metaphor for status in ways that were unimaginable a hundred years earlier. The transformation from attic to penthouse reflects a revolution in the class profile of domestic space.
Paradoxes of technology
We all know that the fruits of innovation have made our lives more comfortable and more efficient (some of the time). Our students are entirely at home with the mechanics of these technologies. They are sometimes called digital natives. Ironically, we who educate this generation are digital visitors. As outsiders in this space, we can nevertheless offer important perspectives.
The history of technology is complex and paradoxical. On the one hand, we may discern a narrative of progress but there is also an alternative and important counter narrative. In the American Civil War at Gettysburg (July 1863), the largest bombardment in history to that date was heard in Harrisburg, forty miles away. New advances in armory, including the Gatling gun, min-ball ammunition, and 2.75 inch Whitworth Breechloading rifles, were capable of inflicting mass damage. They prefigured the field weapons that would dominate the battlefields of the twentieth century. The Northern army were able to decimate the Confederate forces in modes of combat that were not dependent on the intimacy of hand-to-hand fighting.
Further progressive developments in technology refined the capacity for mass destruction, exemplified by the slaughter on the western front in World War I. In the Battle of the Somme alone (July 1, 1916 - November 18 1916), there were over a 1,000,000 casualties.
My generation lived with profound unease based on the terrible potential for efficient destruction that was demonstrated in the twentieth century from the mechanized atrocities of Auschwitz to the apocalyptic violence unleashed at the end of World War II. The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 1945), and the image of the iconic mushroom cloud, is embedded in the psyche of all of us who grew up in the aftermath of that war. The industrialization of death marked the twentieth century. Technological advances were employed in the service of slaughter; faith in the alignment of technology and progress was fractured. The threat of apocalyptic destruction shaped the global politics of the post-war world.
An alternative narrative would certainly focus on the multitude of ways in which our lives have become easier and the places in which we live reconstructed. Mobility has increased beyond the imagination of earlier generations. Our lives are, compared to theirs, longer. The speed of communication is constantly increasing. The city has become a place of light. We have built towards the heavens. These are profound matters that we need to embed in the learning agenda. This is, though, a field of paradox. Technology has taught us to live with terror. Technology has taught us to live with hope. Technology has changed the face of our cities. Technology has polluted our environment. Technology has transformed the human condition.